The Grammar Question

Terry Shortall

When I started to teach EFL in Brazil back in the seventies, life was very
simple. We used to teach language as a series of structures, usually in
the following order: verb "to be," present continuous, present
simple, past simple, and so on. Each class we would drill students mercilessly
on the structure of the day, using repetition, substitution, and transformation.
At the end of the class, students would file out exhausted, and the teacher
would leave knowing that another structure had been conquered. Of course,
as students were not actually allowed to communicate in the target language--in
case they made and learned from their mistakes--we never actually knew if
any of these structures had been learned.

A dozen or so years later, when I was teaching in Japan, all such certainty
was gone. We were told that there was a natural order of acquisition which
was impervious to instruction (see e.g., Krashen, 1985). Grammar was no
longer taught, and instead the teachers' room had massive collections of
games and banks of information gap activities.

But grammar never really went away (Tonkyn, 1994), and is to this day
an important part of most syllabuses. Teachers still teach grammar, and
learners still expect it (see e.g., Richards & Lockhart, 1994). A present-day
syllabus will be more eclectic, of course, and will usually have various
threads running through the course units: grammar, functions, situations,
lexis, etc.

There is widespread recognition now that the teaching of grammar is an
important consciousness-raising device (Rutherford, 1987), that it allows
learners to notice gaps between their interlanguage and the full target
grammar, and that it can accelerate the learning process. This is what Ellis
(1993) terms as the weak interface position: There is no longer the expectation
that what we teach is necessarily what learners learn, but there is an acknowledgment
that explicit grammar instruction is beneficial. A strong interface would
be similar to that of the old structuralist school: Learners would be expected
to learn each discrete item of grammar before moving on to the next.

Despite these changes in attitude, the grammar items in most course books
are similar to those found in classic structural texts (Fries, 1952). There
has been little attempt to re-examine textbook grammar, although proposals
for the use of authentic materials (Little, 1989) have had some influence
on textbook design.

One area that has received little attention in ELT circles is the possibility
of applying ideas from cognitive grammar (Langacker, 1987, 1991) and prototype
theory (Rosch, 1975; Taylor, 1995) to the description of grammar.

Most people, if asked to name a fruit, will come up with apple, banana,
or pear,
but they are unlikely to suggest tomato which, although technically
a fruit, does not fit in with prototypical notions of fruit because it is
usually eaten with salads. Similarly, most people will name sparrow, seagull,
and robin as prototypical of the bird species, but not penguin (because
it does not fly).

Prototypicality is a cognitive reality. Speakers have a range of prototypicalities
built into their minds, and this is as true for linguistic structure as
it is for lexical domains. Taylor (1995) gives the example of the past tense,
which has three distinct uses: (a) to locate an event or state at a specific
time in the past, often accompanied by a time adverbial such as yesterday
or last week; (b) to sequence items with reference to each other, as in
fictional or historical narrative; and (c) to denote counterfactuality,
as in conditionals (If I had time . . . ), expressions of wish or
desire (I wish I had time . . . ), and suppositions or suggestions
(What if you talked to him . . . ). The first of these uses is prototypical,
and is the meaning most people associate with the past tense. The others
are extensions of and from the prototype.

Taylor (1995, p. 197) suggests that "[linguistic] constructions
. . . need . . . to be regarded as prototype categories, with some instantiations
counting as better examples of the construction than others." It is
these "better examples" which are represented in the intuitions
of speakers, not only about their own first language, but also about the
language to be learned. A principled approach to the description of textbook
grammar could, therefore, start out by teaching prototypical grammar items,
and gradually introduce less prototypical examples. In this way, the teaching
of grammar would tap into learners' intuitions.

At JALT99, I hope to look at a number of grammatical structures, and
investigate how these relate to the intuitions of participants. We will
see that such exploration reveals some surprising facts about the grammar
we know--and the grammar we can teach.


Ellis, R. (1993). The structural syllabus and second language
acquisition. TESOL Quarterly, 27 (1), 91-112.

Fries, C. C. (1952). The structure of English: An introduction
to the construction of English sentences.
New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Krashen, S. (1985). The input hypothesis: Issues and
London: Longman.

Langacker, R. W. (1987). Foundations of cognitive grammar,
volume I.
Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Langacker, R. W. (1991). Foundations of cognitive grammar,
volume II.
Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Little, D. (1989). Learning foreign languages from authentic
texts: Theory and practice.
Dublin: Authentik in association with CILT.

Richards, J. C., & Lockhart, C. (1994). Reflective
teaching in second language classrooms.
Cambridge: Cambridge University

Rosch, E. (1975). Cognitive representations of semantic
categories. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104, 192-233.

Rutherford, W. (1987). Second language grammar: Learning
and teaching.
Harlow: Longman.

Taylor, J. R. (1995). Linguistic Categorization
(2nd ed.). Oxford: Clarendon.

Tonkyn, A. (1994). Introduction: Grammar and the language
teacher. In M. Bygate, A. Tonkyn, & E. Williams (Eds.), Grammar and
the language teacher
. Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall.